This blog is highly personal, makes no attempt at being politically correct, will occasionaly offend your sensibility, and certainly does not represent the opinions of the people I work with or for.
On Studying, Learning and Teaching
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The way our education system works is very bad. We put students in rooms, spend time lecturing them, and then ask them to go to a written exam on a given day, and rank them on according of which proportion of the exam they managed to do right. This system makes little sense (if any).

An already better system is the way people are taught how to drive. They have a coach who spends time with them, analysing with them all the aspects of they driving and, one day, when both the student driver and the coach agree that it is time, the student driver goes to a person with the knowledge and authority to deliver the driving licence. That day, you do to not get a mark, you either get your license or you don't, but at least in this last case, you know that you can try again later. How would this be adapted to, say, university studies ?

First of all, when you arrive at university, when you start the first year of bachelor studies, you are given a partner, or you can choose your partner yourself if you already know a classmate that you like. Yourself and your partner are going to coach each other during the next three years. Of course, yourself and your partner know the basics of coaching, but that's something you were taught when you were much younger, even before high school, and that you had time to practice times and times again.

You are given lectures, but they are not the main thing. For each course, you are given some written lecture notes and/or a list of items you must learn. Your teachers can be found to answer your questions, but mainly you have to study with your partner (this means spending a lot of time studying by yourself in the Library and then catch up with your coach in the cafeteria). There is no time limit to learn (within reason, of course... The University could decide that after all they can kick you out after three years, if you have not completed your degree). When yourself and your partner both estimate that you are ready, you can take an appointment with a lecturer who is going to examine you.

The examination takes place in a room with the lecturer, sat on either side of a table, or the lecturer is sat down and you stand up next to a black board that you will be using to write some answers, or same thing but you are rather using a computer that you will use to perform the tasks, etc. In all cases it's a one to one examination. The idea of the examination is that the lecturer is basically going to try and fail you. He or she will ask you simple or more complex questions, for an indefinite amount of time, until he/she finds something important in the course (only from the official curriculum) that you didn't know or didn't understand and in that case you fail the examination, or until the lecturer has the certainty that there is nothing you didn't understand (or that what you didn't understand does not affect your overall perfect understanding of the course), and in that case he/she gives you your course certificate.

I think that this learning/examination setting is particularly suited for mathematics, for instance, and more generally for any scientific subject. But it can easily be adapted to about anything. Of course, one of the reasons it may seem unpractical is the fact that the lecturer test one student at a time (and only on student's requests). But this unpracticality can be overcome (for instance by asking PhD students to do some of the testing, etc., all those points are details....). You can also add rules, such as: "if you fail an examination you have to wait 30 days before being able to request another appointment", all kind of stuff... There can also be a rule about video taping the examinations. If you have good reason to believe that the lecturer unfairly failed you, you can ask a jury to watch the tape. But another time, all those are implementation details. Another implementation detail is that you can perfectly decide that you don't need a partner and keep studying on your own, if you wish so.

Given the way things are organised, the task of your partner is simple, prepare you for your examination, and in this case it is totally in the best interest of your partner to train you the best he can for your success, but it is also in your own interest to learn as well as you can. Note that you are also the coach of your partner, so as a coach you must do all you expect your partner to do when he/she coaches you. During your work with your partner, there should not be any stone left unturned. If for instance you have mastered 95% of a math course, but don't want to spend more time on the last 5%, first of all you are being stupid because you don't have any limit time, there is no target date for the examination, so why not spend few more days covering the last bits, but in addition, it is certain that the lecturer who is going to examine you will uncover your misunderstanding.

Right from the beginning, I have talked about a partner, but it is in the interest of all the students of a given class, to work together sometimes, to exchange ideas and stuff, even is a subject like mathematics. Also it might sometimes be required to change partners, for some reasons: affinity, working hours etc..

In order to segregate between students, one will not be looking at the marks, because there are none, but simply how many course certification they managed to get during their three years. It is in the best interest of every student to do as many as they can, but they are to remember that rushing won't help. Examinations are of very high standard. You must master the entire curriculum of a course in order to get your course certificate, and smiling to the lecturer/PhD student examining you won't help.

I believe that if we implement such system, not only at university but before that as well, the resulting level of people going out of school, either after high school or after university will be much higher than it currently is.

** ** **

The above is actually how I got my last Masters course in 2002. I was the only student of the course and the lecturer, a woman, told me to let her know when I was ready to be examined ; at which point she invited me in her office.

On the day, she was totally relax, her feet on the table, and just started to ask me some questions. Some time later she told me that she was willing to give me a high score for her course (I had not even noticed that the examination had started actually), but that she wanted to have a bit of fun and that, if I didn't mind, she would carry on asking me more questions (more difficult) and that my ability to answer them would not affect the final result. She eventually did manage to find things I could not answer, but apparently that was what she was looking for...

** ** **

I have been studying two courses over the last 10 days, and I was wondering when should I stop studying them and move to new ones. I suddenly realised that the best (and only) answer to this is that I must first get a certification. So I started to think of how to define such "certification" and came up with the above description of the way I think learning should be organised. The funny thing is that I don't have anybody to examine me, so I will perform my own examination.

I also realised that preparing for an examination is way easier if you have a studying partner. As I do not have a partner, I have to become my own partner and perform my own coaching. That part is bound to be funny: me alone at home or at work, talking loud to myself and answering to my own questions. The nice thing, though, is that I am extremely picky and demanding (*), even (and above all) with myself, that I am about the best coach I could ever have (^.^)

(*) I am the kind of person to convince myself that if I fail one of my own self examinations, then an innocent child, somewhere in the world, is going to die.


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